Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly will take its seats within the next two weeks to decide on the constitutional framework of the country. In a country that has known nothing but authoritarianism since its independence, only time will tell whether any of its politicians (Islamist or otherwise), will truly commit to a human rights agenda. There are, however, signs that the coalition of Ennahdha and certain secular parties that will be part of the governing coalition, could lead to the establishment of fundamental rights in newly democratic Tunisia.
The work of the assembly will be multi-faceted, it will act both as a legislator and sitting government and as a committee to draft the constitution. One of the major preoccupations of Tunisians and the international community will be how it protects civil rights. Many have called for a bill of rights to protect the rights that were eroded by the previous authoritarian regimes.
The elections on October 23 were won by the Islamist party, Ennahdha, which claimed 40 percent of the seats in the assembly. Ennahdha campaigned as a protector of Tunisian identity (particularly its religion and customs). It also worked to assuage fears that would not follow through on its stated commitment to human rights. Ennahdha’s opponents openly questioned Ennahdha’s true commitment to these freedoms. Reuter’s Andrew Hammond wrote last week that, to many conservative Muslims, Ghannouchi represents the most liberal wing of his party.
In the face of these doubts, the party, orignially an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, has not wavered from these commitments following its victory last week. In a press conference on Friday, Rached Ghannouchi, the party’s founder and leader reasserted his party’s commitment to ”the principles of freedom of thought, belief, speech and dress.”
While Ennahdha’s membership certainly represents a multiplicity of views, from conservative to liberal, Ennahdha’s leadership understands that its stance on civil rights issues will be under the microscope in the coming year, particularly by the G8, which has committed billions of dollars in aid to assist in the transition. In addition to external pressure, Ennahdha members were victims of egregious civil rights violations under the previous regime. Freedom of worship, assembly, and association were severely limited under Ben Ali, to the detriment of Islamists as much as anyone.
Enter Moncef Marzouki and Mustapha Ben Jafaar, leaders of the two major secular parties that have agreed to work with Ennahdha as part of a unity coalition, the CPR and Ettakatol. These two figures could hold the key to ensuring and codifying commitments to civil rights in Tunisia’s new constitution. Some background: Marzouki and Ben Jafaar were both prominent figures in the opposition to Ben Ali. Marzouki was the head of the Tunisian League of Human Rights and returned from exile after Ben Ali’s fall. Ben Jafaar also worked for greater human rights in Tunisia and is seen as a centrist reformer. Both campaigned as secular candidates, but unlike their fellow center left parties, the PDM and PDP, did not refuse to work with Ennahdha.
Ennahdha, deprived of an absolute majority, will have to work with the CPR and Ettakatol to advance its agenda. Ennahdha has reportedly already offered key posts to both leaders. This will be an opportunity for both Marzouki and Ben Jafaar to prove to their supporters that they can deliver on a centrist, secular agenda, while working with Islamists.
It will also be an opportunity for Ghannouchi to show to Ennahdha’s moderate supporters that their trust in the party’s moderation was well placed. Meanwhile, Ennahdha will be able to deliver some key victories on freedom of worship and dress to its more extreme members and fringe elements, such as salafists. There will be unintended consequences for many of the country’s liberal parties. Ennahdha’s commitment to freedom of dress has been reported in the west as a commitment to not impose the veil on women. But many conservatives in Tunisia will see it as a commitment to ensure that the niqab can be worn, a pre-election issue at the country’s universities. Civil rights and freedom of expression cuts many ways, as was so clearly expressed in the tense debate and protests surrounding the broadcasting of Persepolis following the elections.
The political horse trading that will ensue in the coming months could lead to truly big changes in the conception of rights in the Arab world. The governing coalition will have a unique opportunity to enshrine the most basic rights of freedom of assembly, expression, religion, and speech in its new constitution. Time will tell whether Tunisia’s new leaders will take this opportunity or not.